A neighborhood in Cambodia is a global hotspot for the child sex trade. The people selling the children? Too often, their parents. W hen a poor family in Cambodia fell afoul of loan sharks, the mother asked her youngest daughter to take a job. But not just any job. The girl, Kieu, was taken to a hospital and examined by a doctor, who issued her a "certificate of virginity.
She says she returned home from the experience "very heartbroken. After the sale of her virginity, her mother had Kieu taken to a brothel where, she says, "they held me like I was in prison.
She was kept there for three days, raped by three to six men a day. When she returned home, her mother sent her away for stints in two other brothels, including one kilometers away on the Thai border.
When she learned her mother was planning to sell her again, this time for a six-month stretch, she realized she needed to flee her home. Karaoke bars are a common front for child prostitution. Mira Sorvino details going behind the scenes of this illicit trade. Like other local mothers CNN spoke to, she blames poverty for her decision to sell her daughter, saying a financial crisis drove her into the clutches of the traffickers who make their livelihoods preying on Cambodian children.
It is this aspect of Cambodia's appalling child sex trade that Don Brewster, a year-old American resident of the neighborhood, finds most difficult to countenance. Brewster, a former pastor, moved from California to Cambodia with wife Bridget in , after a harrowing investigative mission trip to the neighborhood where Kieu grew up -- Svay Pak, the epicenter of child trafficking in the Southeast Asian nation.
In recent decades, he says, this impoverished fishing village — where a daughter's virginity is too often seen as a valuable asset for the family — has become a notorious child sex hotspot.
The local sex industry sweeps up both children from the neighborhood -- sold, like Kieu, by their parents — as well as children trafficked in from the countryside, or across the border from Vietnam.
Weak law enforcement, corruption, grinding poverty and the fractured social institutions left by the country's turbulent recent history have helped earn Cambodia an unwelcome reputation for child trafficking, say experts. UNICEF estimates that children account for a third of the 40,, people in the country's sex industry.
Svay Pak, a dusty shantytown on the outskirts of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, is at the heart of this exploitative trade. The residents are mostly undocumented Vietnamese migrants, many of whom live in ramshackle houseboats on the murky Tonle Sap River, eking out a living farming fish in nets tethered to their homes.
It's a precarious existence. The river is fickle, the tarp-covered houseboats fragile. Most families here scrape by on less than a dollar a day, leaving no safety net for when things go wrong — such as when Kieu's father fell seriously ill with tuberculosis, too sick to maintain the nets that contained their livelihood. The family fell behind on repayments of a debt. In desperation, Kieu's mother, Neoung, sold her virginity to a Cambodian man of "maybe more than 50," who had three children of his own, Kieu says.
Don Brewster, a former pastor from California, is the founder and director of Agape International Missions, an organization dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating the victims of child trafficking in Cambodia and smashing the networks that exploit them. He moved to Cambodia with his wife in after a harrowing investigative mission trip to the neighborhood. The men who abuse the children of Svay Pak fit a number of profiles.
They include pedophile sex tourists, who actively seek out sex with prepubescent children, and more opportunistic "situational" offenders, who take advantage of opportunities in brothels to have sex with adolescents. Sex tourists tend to hail from affluent countries, including the West, South Korea, Japan and China, but research suggests Cambodian men remain the main exploiters of child prostitutes in their country.
Mark Capaldi is a senior researcher for Ecpat International, an organization committed to combating the sexual exploitation of children. But the majority of sexual exploitation of children is of adolescents, and that's taking place in commercial sex venues. The abusers would often be local, situational offenders, he says. Research suggests some of the Asian perpetrators are "virginity seekers," for whom health-related beliefs around the supposedly restorative or protective qualities of virgins factor into their interest in child sex.
Whatever the profile of the perpetrator, the abuse they inflict on their victims, both girls and boys, is horrific. Trafficked children in Cambodia have been subjected to rape by multiple offenders, filmed performing sex acts and left with physical injuries -- not to mention psychological trauma -- from their ordeals, according to research.
In recent years, various crackdowns in Svay Pak have dented the trade, but also pushed it underground. Today, Brewster says, there are more than a dozen karaoke bars operating as brothels along the road to the neighborhood, where two years ago there was none.
Even today, he estimates a majority of girls in Svay Park are being trafficked. Kieu's relative, Sephak, who lives nearby, is another survivor. CNN is naming the victims in this case at the request of the girls themselves, as they want to speak out against the practice of child sex trafficking.
Sephak was 13 when she was taken to a hospital, issued a certificate confirming her virginity, and delivered to a Chinese man in a Phnom Penh hotel room.
She was returned after three nights. I hurt and I felt very weak," she says. I thought about why I was doing this and why my mom did this to me.
Toha listens to her mother explain how she came to sell her to sex traffickers. She no longer lives with her family, opting instead to live in a residence for trafficking survivors run by Brewster's organization -- but still provides her family some financial support from her new job. Not far away from Sephak's family home, connected to the shore via a haphazard walkway of planks that dip beneath the water with each footfall, is the houseboat where Toha grew up.
The second of eight children, none of whom attend school, Toha was sold for sex by her mother when she was The transaction followed the same routine: medical certificate, hotel, rape. About two weeks after she returned to Svay Pak, she says, the man who had bought her virginity began calling, requesting to see her again.
Her mother urged her to go. The pressure drove her to despair. I cut my wrists because I wanted to kill myself," Toha says. A friend broke down the door to the bathroom and came to her aid. CNN met with the mothers of Kieu, Sephak and Toha in Svay Pak to hear their accounts of why they chose to expose their daughters to sexual exploitation. Kieu's mother, Neoung, had come to Svay Pak from the south of the country in search of a better life when Kieu was just a baby.
But life in Svay Pak, she would learn, wasn't easy. How has this Southeast Asian nation become a hotspot for pedophiles? Poverty, corruption and a brutal reign of terror have all played a part in making Cambodian children vulnerable to adult predators. Sephak's mother, Ann, has a similar story. Ann moved to Svay Pak when her father came to work as a fish farmer.
She and her husband have serious health problems. The family fell on hard times. When a storm roared through the region, their house was badly damaged, their fish got away, and they could no longer afford to eat. With money-lenders coming to her home and threatening her, Ann made the decision to take up an offer from a woman who approached her promising big money for her daughter's virginity.
On her houseboat, as squalls of rain lash the river, Toha's mother Ngao sits barefoot before the television taking pride of place in the main living area, and expresses similar regrets.
On the wall hangs a row of digitally enhanced portraits of her husband and eight children. They are dressed in smart suits and dresses, superimposed before an array of fantasy backdrops: an expensive motorcycle, a tropical beach, an American-style McMansion.
Life with so many children is hard, she says, so she asked her daughter to go with the men. She would not do the same again, she says, as she now has access to better support; Agape International Missions offers interest-free loan refinancing to get families out of the debt trap, and factory jobs for rescued daughters and their mothers.
Mira Sorvino details her week spent in Cambodia with the CNN Freedom Project meeting victims, government officials and activists working to end child sex trafficking. The news of Ngao's betrayal of her daughter has drawn mixed responses from others in the neighborhood, she says.
Some mock her for offering up her daughter, others sympathize with her plight. Some see nothing wrong with she did at all. Not long after her suicide attempt, Toha was sent to a brothel in southern Cambodia. She endured more than 20 days there, before she managed to get access to a phone, and called a friend.
She told the friend to contact Brewster's group, who arranged for a raid on the establishment. Although children can be found in many brothels across Cambodia -- a survey of 80 Cambodian commercial sex premises found three-quarters offering children for sex — raids to free them are infrequent. The country's child protection infrastructure is weak, with government institutions riven with corruption. Cambodia's anti-trafficking law does not even permit police to conduct undercover surveillance on suspected traffickers. General Pol Phie They, the head of Cambodia's anti-trafficking taskforce set up in to address the issue, says this puts his unit at a disadvantage against traffickers.
He admits that police corruption in his country, ranked of countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, is hampering efforts to tackle the trade in Svay Pak. Toha's nightmare is now over. She earns a steady income, weaving bracelets that are sold in American stores, while she studies for her future. Her dream is to become a social worker, helping other girls who have been through the same ordeal.
Brewster believes that corruption was to blame for nearly thwarting Toha's rescue. In October , after Toha's call for help, AIM formulated plans with another organization to rescue the teen, and involved police. I'm locked inside and don't know where I am. Fortunately the rescue team were able to establish Toha's new location, and she and other victims were freed and the brothel managers arrested — although not before the owners fled to Vietnam.
Toha's testimony against the brothel managers, however, resulted in their prosecutions. Last month, at the Phnom Penh Municipal Courthouse, husband and wife Heng Vy and Nguyeng Thi Hong were found guilty of procuring prostitution and sentenced to three years in jail. Brewster was in court to watch the sentencing; a small victory in the context of Cambodia's child trafficking problem, but a victory nonetheless.
She stood up and now people are going to pay the price and girls will be protected. What it will do is bring more Tohas, more girls who are willing to speak, places shut down, bad guys put away. Like the other victims, Toha now lives in an AIM safehouse, attending school and supporting herself by weaving bracelets, which are sold in stores in the West as a way of providing a livelihood to formerly trafficked children.
In the eyes of the community, having a job has helped restore to the girls some of the dignity that was stripped from them by having been sold into trafficking, says Brewster.